Wyoming cave dig unearths bones of
ancient horses, cheetahs and bison
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[August 11, 2014]
By Laura Zuckerman
(Reuters) - Scientists excavating an
ancient Wyoming sinkhole containing a rare trove of fossils of Ice Age
mammals have unearthed hundreds of bones of such prehistoric animals as
American cheetahs, a paleontologist said on Friday.
The two-week dig by an international team of researchers led by
Des Moines University paleontologist Julie Meachen marked the first
exploration of Natural Trap Cave at the base of the Bighorn
Mountains in north-central Wyoming since its initial discovery in
Meachen said the extensive excavation that began late last month
uncovered roughly 200 large bones of animals like horses that roamed
North America from 12,000 to 23,000 years ago and an uncounted
number of microfossils of creatures such as birds, lizards and
“We found evidence of bison, a bit of gray wolf and quite a lot of
cheetah and horse,” she said of the first of three planned annual
digs, which ended on Friday.
Researchers expect their study of the fossils to provide new
insights into the climate, diets and genetic diversity of North
American creatures that disappeared during the Ice Age extinction
more than 10,000 years ago.
A number of animals that fell 85 feet to their deaths after
stumbling into the 15-foot-wide mouth of the cavern were unusually
well preserved by cold and damp conditions, Meachen said.
“Some bones still have collagen with intact DNA for genetic testing
and some fossils are fragments crushed by rocks. But we take it for
what it is when we find it,” she said.
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Meachen rappelled 10 times into the sinkhole, which widens to 120
feet at its base, and ascended with the use of ropes that also were
used to haul out buckets of artifacts.
The opening of the cave, formed by the collapse of limestone
bedrock, has been covered for decades by a metal grate installed by
federal land managers.
A pack rat fell into the cavern and died during the excavation but a
deer mouse that plunged below ground survived and was sent by bucket
to the surface and nursed back to health, Meachen said.
The carcass of the pack rat was left in the sinkhole to be studied
over time as a measure of the decay rate of mammals in the cave, she
(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Cynthia
Johnston and Eric Beech)
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